Frederick Law Olmsted Jr’s Mountain Lake Sanctuary: The Creation and Legacy of a Didactic Landscape


The Mountain Lake Sanctuary and Bok Singing Tower near Lake Wales, Florida was the brainchild of its patron, Edward W. Bok, the Philadelphia based editor of the Ladies Home Journal and his wife, Mary Louise Curtis Bok. But it came to fruition through the leadership of Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. and a design team that included architect Milton Medary, sculptor Lee Lawrie, and metalworker Samuel Yellin.

Under Olmsted’s guidance, what Bok had begun as a simple bird sanctuary amid native pines and sandhill scrub on a Central Florida hilltop developed into a subtropical landscape designed to attract both wildlife and visitors. Planned during the mid-1920s, and dedicated by President Calvin Coolidge in 1929, the 25-acre landscape complemented by the 205-foot carillon tower that serves as its architectural focus, became one of Florida’s most visited, and most photographed, tourist attractions during the 1930s.

Beginning in the late 19th century, Florida’s winter tourism centered on the natural world of tropical plants and animals that seemed exotic to Northern sensibilities. The creation of the Mountain Lake Sanctuary built upon both this leading edge of the state’s tourism focus and Bok’s desire for visitors to interact with an unfamiliar designed landscape that would inspire and instruct.

Changes in the thrust of Florida tourism in the late 20th century, most notably marked by the 1971 opening of Walt Disney World, and the creation of other attractions in nearby Orlando, has made Bok Tower and its designed landscape seem to be very tame stuff, but in recent years the stewards of the Mountain Lake Sanctuary have refocused and expanded its mission in ways that have allowed the site to remain true to the vision that created it. By the early years of the 21th century, the site had grown to 250 acres, 10 times the size of the landscape that Olmsted designed in the 1920s.

This paper will consider the Mountain Lake Sanctuary landscape as a didactic expression of the intent of client and designers during the 1920s. It will also look at the development of the landscape as a response to the Environmental Movement of the late twentieth century and to the developing mission of its stewards during the more than 90 years of its history.

Dennis Montagna
Dennis Montagna

NPS Photo

Presenter Biography

Dennis Montagna leads the National Park Service’s Monument Research & Preservation Program, based in the Philadelphia regional office. The program provides assistance in the interpretation and preservation of memorials and memorial landscapes to NPS partners and park units. He holds a Master’s degree in Art History from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and a Ph.D from the University of Delaware. His doctoral dissertation examined the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial as a focal point for the commemorative landscape designed for Washington, D.C.’s ceremonial core during the first decade of the 20th Century.

Part of a series of articles titled Olmsteds: Landscapes and Legacies.

Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site

Last updated: April 25, 2023